Ghent, the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province of Belgium, is a pretty city with a long history and it is often considered to be a less touristy destination than the more famous Bruges.
A number of city landmarks such as the belfry and the Cloth Hall have been used in the filming of period dramas, and when wandering the quiet cobbled streets of Ghent it’s easy to feel you have been transported back in time.
History of Ghent
Archaeologists have traced signs of human settlement in the area around Ghent to prehistoric time, but it wasn’t until the Roman era that a community of any real size began to develop on the spot where the rivers Scheldt and Leie meet. Trade, particularly in cloth using wool imported from England, helped the city to grow in size and wealth In the 11th and 12th centuries, and it was at this time that the impressive Castle of the Counts was built.
The city was later affected by the decline in the cloth trade and riven by conflict between Protestants and Catholics. It was not until the late 18th century that relative peace and prosperity returned to the city when it became part of the French Empire, and soon the industrial revolution helped to finally transform the fortunes of Ghent. Today Ghent has a population of about 250,000 people, popular as a university city and a destination for tourism.
Five things to do in Ghent
So you are ready to start exploring Ghent. But what are the ‘must see’ attractions that should be on every visitor’s itinerary? Here are five suggestions of things to do during your visit to the city - and a map to help you find your way around.
St Bavo Cathedral
The Gothic cathedral of St Bavo is an impressive Ghent landmark and visitors prepared to climb the 444 steps of its tower are rewarded with stunning views of the city below. The cathedral was the site of the baptism of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and is home to a collection of artistic treasures. The most famous work of art housed in the cathedral is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, which is considered to be one of the most important works of the early Northern Renaissance.
Sint-Baafsplein, 9000 Ghent
It has been said that if you were to ask ten people from Ghent what the most beautiful place in their city is, nine would reply ‘the Graslei’. This historic medieval port within the heart of the city is home to a spectacular row of old buildings and is a popular meeting place for the people of Ghent. The architecture on show here is reminder of how trade and commerce led to the growth of the city in the Middle Ages.
Graslei, 9000 Ghent
Bij Sint-Jacobs Flea Market
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning the Bij Sint-Jacobs square hosts a famous flea market surrounded by countless bric-a-brac shops. It’s a great place to have a wander, explore the many stalls and perhaps pick up a bargain.
Sint-Jacobs, 9000 Ghent
Castle of the Counts
The site of this imposing castle was first fortified by in the 10th century by Arnulf, the Count of Flanders, because of the natural protection afforded by the River Leie and the marshy banks that flank it. The castle was improved and reconstructed over the years that followed until in 1176 it was ravaged by fire. Then, in 1180, Count Philip of Alsace set about the reconstruction of the castle and in the process made a bold statement of his power and wealth.
Eventually the castle was to become the seat of both the Council of Flanders, the county’s highest court, and the feudal court of the Oudburg, a regional bench of aldermen. New buildings were erected, including courtrooms and dungeons, and the castle gained a terrible reputation as place where victims were held in appalling conditions and event subjected to vicious torture. The people of Ghent came to see the fortress as a symbol of power, feudal oppression and inquisition.
Today the Castle of the Counts is the city’s most important tourist attraction and visitors can learn more about what life was like in Ghent all those centuries ago. On certain weekends the history is brought to life by actors portraying the lives of the people of once lived in and around the castle.
Sint-Veerleplein 11, 9000 Ghent
Ghent City Museum
Housed in a 14th century abbey, a 17th century monastery and a new 21st century building, the city museum tells the story of Ghent’s past, present and future. The permanent collection takes visitors on a journey from the earliest settlement, through the Middle Ages and the industrialisation of the city, to the present day and the plans for the future of Ghent.
Godshuizenlaan 2, 9000 Ghent
Ghent is located in the Flemish region of Belgium and is easily reached by car if you travel by ferry from Dover to France, being roughly a two hour drive from the port at Calais.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £29 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
You can find out more about Ghent on the Visit Ghent website.